With a last name like “Cronenberg,” you just might have something to prove when you choose to go into filmmaking, but Brandon Cronenberg has already fully proven himself to be as cerebral and visionary a filmmaker as his well-known father.
Possessor Uncut, Cronenberg’s follow-up to 2012’s Antiviral, is a similarly mind-altering genre film, this one starring Andrea Riseborough as Tasya Vos, an assassin who uses brain-implant technology to control other people’s bodies in order to take out high-powered targets from inside their closely-guarded circles. The film follows what happens when Vos is put into the body of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott) in order to kill his boss and fiancé’s father (played by Sean Bean) but she ends up becoming trapped while trying to battle for control of his mind.
It’s another film with such a distinctive look and feel, so during Below the Line’s recent interview with Cronenberg, we mainly focused on his work with some of the key creatives that helped him create the unique visuals. Two of them, Cinematographer Karim Hussain and Editor Matthew Hannam, even received “Associate Producer”credit on the film.
Part of the film’s distinctive look can be attributed to his ongoing collaboration with Hussain, who also shot Antiviral and a number of compelling genre films in between, including Ted Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here and Mohawk, and Jay Baruchel’s Random Acts of Violence.
“Karim is a close friend of mine – we met on Antiviral actually, but we became very close afterwards,” Cronenberg told us about one of his closest collaborators. “We spent a lot of time during those development years between the two films working on this. He actually lived just down the street from me for a number of years during development, and we would get together frequently and play around with potential camera tricks and build a bank of ideas.”
“We knew even as this film was being developed that it would be in a sense two worlds, one where Vos was inside the machine possessing people in one where she was outside in her own life, and those need to tap different looks to them and feel different,” Cronenberg stated on developing the film’s visual sense of style with his regular DP. “So we created a set of rules. When she’s in her own life, it’s all handheld and the focus is a bit deeper, so it has this slightly harsher and more unsettled look to it, because she’s more unsettled in her own life and feeling kind of vulnerable. When she’s in the machine, possessing people, that’s where she’s more comfortable, and so it has no handheld. It’s all Steadicam and dolly shots, and so a shallower depth of field and has this more traditional cinematic quality.”
Cronenberg continued to speak on how his collaboration with Hussain played out even before filming began. “The in-camera camera effects, we experimented practically in Karim’s living room. We’ve made a few low-budget music videos together and a short film where we were further exploring these ideas so that we had a good a good storeroom of tricks that we could then bring to the film for those installation sequences.”
“With Rupert [Lazarus], the production designer, it was the first time I worked with him,” he said about another key part to the film’s development process. “We got along well, and it was just a normal process during pre-production of looking at other films, looking at images, and bouncing ideas off each other. I have some very modest drawing abilities, so I was able to contribute somewhat. For instance, we were going down a particular path with a concept artist with the mask Vos wears when she jumps into people’s bodies, and it wasn’t going quite where I wanted it to, so I could do a kind of rough sketch of what I wanted and then refined that with the concept artist.”
“There were certain scenes where I went into writing them with a very specific idea,” the filmmaker mentioned. “For instance, the scene where it’s flipping from this internal world with the red gel and yellow flare to the normally colored world and the characters swapping in and out, that was something specific that I wanted to do. It was actually written into the script early on, and then I wrote it out of the script, because it was unnecessarily detailed just in terms of reading, and for financing, but it was a very particular idea that I wanted to try. For other scenes, I’ll sometimes just write a kind of vague paragraph about the fact that the image is deforms, and there’s nightmarish imagery, and so on and so on. That’s a kind of shorthand for Karim, and I know that what we’re actually going to do there is experiment, come up with some ideas we like and always treat it like a little music video within the film, where we can try things out.”
Cronenberg shared an amusing anecdote about how those experimental leanings led to a rather strange moment during filming. “There was definitely a moment where one of my producers walked onto the set, and we had multiple projectors and three cameras, and Chris and Andrea, wearing their costume standing in front of the projection screen and kind of screaming and shaking their hands. I stood under them turning a flashlight on and off and flashing it. Afterwards, he said, ‘What were you doing? I don’t recall that being in the script. What was that?’ When you’re filming, it looks absolutely ridiculous, but you’re building this material, this projection feedback footage, which then, when it’s cut into the film becomes something. There was a lot of shooting strange little things to build that material.”
Speaking of editing… “[Matthew] edited Antiviral, and we also have become friends since that film,” Cronenberg confirmed about reuniting with Hannam for his second feature. “That was great, actually, because it was my first time working with the same editor twice, so we could go into the film, having already established a shorthand and already know how to work together. We were actually able to do a lot fairly quickly, and we were able to move past the touchy phase of editing where you’re not sure whether you can say that something has to just be cut out. Very quickly, we could throw stuff out that wasn’t working and rearrange stuff and get some of those broad strokes in.”
Another major part of the equation was the film’s sound design and score, which takes the unease the viewer feels while watching the film to a new level.
“The sound designer was Martin Pavey, who also mixed it, and the composer was Jim Williams,” Brandenberg spoke on that aspect of the film’s unique feel. “Martin, I had never worked with; Jim, I had done a short film with before this. Both of them know each other and they did a lot of Ben Wheatley’s films together, so they already had a good working relationship. They’re both just these brilliant guys, willing to experiment and throw ideas around. In Jim’s case, we started working with him during the edit, but a little bit earlier than you would expect a composer to come on normally, because he was up for just throwing some music at us that we could layer in over the edit, which ended up being very helpful. We found some themes of his that we could cut to, and that then informed the score when it was time to polish it up. It was just good to have his own original music in certain sequences as essentially temps for what then we could actually use.”
“Martin is this fantastic guy who also loves to experiment, a kind of Karim on the sound front, which is a compliment if you know Karim,” Cronenberg continued. “For instance, the sound of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s voice when she speaks through Colin’s head was actually run through a a literal bone, and that was how it was used to distort the sound.”
One question that seems apt for most filmmakers right now is how they’ve been using the pandemic shutdown (or lockdown, if you prefer) constructively towards their art. Since Possessor premiered at Sundance, Cronenberg presumably had the last six months to develop other things. In fact, he has been developing and rewriting two projects, one called Infinity Pool, which he describes as a “tourist resort satire with some sci fi horror elements” and another one called Dragon, a space horror film. Regardless, there’s so much uncertainty about when he might be able to start filming either one of them.
“I’m not sure what our shooting schedule is, given the pandemic, but I’ve been trying to write and get things as close to being ready,” he concurred. “They shut down everything here, and then suddenly, a bunch of stuff started going — I’m not exactly sure what changed. We’re just hitting a second wave now, as well, so I don’t know if things are going to shut down again, or if they’ve just settled into a routine that safe enough to keep things going. I hope we can keep shooting, and obviously it would be great if productions could continue safely, but I guess we’ll see now that transmission is on the rise.”
Possessor Uncut is released in select theaters and drive-ins (where available) on Friday, October 2.